Ride in Chicago with “Bike Mayor” John Bauters to help elect him to higher office

I’m co-hosting a fundraiser for John Bauters when he visits Chicago in two weeks on Monday, July 22. You can donate now or keep reading to learn why it’s important to support candidates like John.

John is formerly the mayor of Emeryville, California, and is running for Alameda County Supervisor in a runoff election on November 5, 2024. After finding out that he was coming to Chicago (for a work conference), I talked to some other Chicagoans and quickly put together an idea for a “meet and greet” event.

I was really just excited that I could meet John because I wasn’t able to meet him when he was here in August 2022 and rode in the monthly Critical Mass bike ride. John is well known online as “America’s Bike Mayor” because of how he rides around Emeryville, a city of 13,000 people, posting photos and videos of new sustainable transportation infrastructure and housing in the city, sometimes with his dog, Reyna. 

Because of the successes in reducing traffic crashes there and increasing the number of affordable homes and housing for the homeless that John has shepherded as a council member and as mayor, John is known around the United States as a progressive leader. 

On Monday, July 22, I’ll be co-hosting a fundraiser for John in Chicago, alongside Nate Hutcheson, Ben Wolfenstein, Michelle Stenzel, Tim Shambrook, and Brendan Kevenides (an attorney with FK Law Illinois). We’ll start the bike ride in Lincoln Square, ride through the 40th and 47th Wards making a couple stops along the way to showcase good and bad urbanism, and end the ride on the lakefront for a community discussion followed by a happy hour. 

We’re asking people to donate to John’s campaign (for Alameda County Supervisor, where he’s in a runoff) to get the details for the ride. We’re also looking for additional people to join the host committee (contact me if you’re interested). You can donate as little as $20 to join this ride and you’re adding your voice to a call for more active transportation leadership nationally.

So here’s the question I think a lot of people are wondering: why should Chicagoans donate to someone running for office in another state?

Michelle Stenzel, founder of Bike Walk Lincoln Park, said, “It’s important for city planners to have examples from the United States of successful balanced street designs. Former Emeryville Mayor John Bauters was an agent for making the roads less car-centric. I’m supporting John in running for a new position that will allow him to broaden his influence even further, which will benefit everyone who cares about livable streets.”

Brendan Kevenides, an attorney who represents many injured cyclists in Chicago, said, “FK Law is proud to support John Bauters because he’s the kind of bicycle advocate, the sort of pragmatic leader that cities and towns throughout the United States need more of. He puts in the work necessary to bring about change in transportation policy that saves lives and improves living.”

John’s work has been trendsetting from the Bay Area. Under his leadership, Emeryville has been transformed as a community. Examples of sustainable urban policies they’ve led on:

  • One of the first cities to eliminate parking minimums and reduce maximums.
  • Removing on-street parking in favor of separated, protected bike lanes and dedicated transit-only lanes.
  • Developed “Sustainable Streetscapes” program that requires implementation of the bike/ped plan when streets are repaved.
  • Designated a “Pro-Housing City” by Governor Newsom for the abundance and affordability of housing the city is producing

John also championed Alameda County’s 400-mile Countywide Bikeways Plan and also initiated the County Transportation Commission’s Race & Equity Action Plan. (Note that Alameda County covers most of the East Bay communities, including Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville.) In 2022, the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club gave John their inaugural Visionary Award for his work to build safe, sustainable, and environmentally-forward communities through climate action and leadership.

Eric Rogers, a prolific photographer who bikes for transportation and fun and took one of the photos above, said, “Mayor Bauters has been an inspirational leader in encouraging cities to adopt people-centric mobility policies that make us all healthier and safer. We need to give him a bigger platform to bring these ideas to more people. Plus, he’s a friendly guy with deep roots in Chicago and the Midwest, and we have to support our own!”

John is an accessible politician and holds “mobile office hours” talking to constituents on walks and bike rides. He’ll spend some time speaking to us about safe streets advocacy after the ride but would also welcome a chance to talk about supporting broader causes, helping elect women and urbanists, and protecting vulnerable community members. Please chip in and come join us for a solidarity ride with an elected official who is modeling what we want to see here in Chicago.

Additional dwelling units can help homeowners and make housing safer

A copy of my letter to the editor, as published in the Chicago Sun-Times. I had originally submitted this as an op-ed that was twice the length but I reduced it to 375 words at their behest.

Fran Spielman’s recent article “‘Bungalow Belt’ City Council members brace for battle over ‘granny flat’ expansion” didn’t address related positive impacts likely to result from allowing “additional dwelling units” (ADUs) citywide. I want to shed light on unmentioned benefits.

Ald. Marty Quinn cited a fire in an illegal attic apartment. A safety benefit of legalizing ADUs citywide is making it easier for homeowners to legalize and renovate parts of a house that were built without a building permit.

Photo of the print version of the letter, by J.A.

When City Hall discovers an unpermitted dwelling — say, after a fire — the homeowner must spend money to remove parts that make it a home (usually the kitchen) because location-specific zoning rules prohibit it from remaining in place. What if the homeowner could spend that money making the attic or basement apartment code-compliant and continue providing a home? Allowing ADUs citywide increases safety citywide.

Another ADU benefit is that homeowners can generate income to help pay their mortgage or to facilitate multi-generational households. Council members should consider how best to implement citywide ADUs so that those benefits accrue to homeowners equitably. A debate exists over whether to allow ADUs in all residential zoning districts “by right” or to require homeowners in the city’s RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts to get “special use” approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Getting that approval to build an ADU will create a barrier so high that many homeowners will be unable to adapt their property to fit their family’s needs. Special use applications require a $1,000 application fee, plus fees charged by attorneys and consultants (which, while not required, are essential to ensure a successful outcome).

Divergent modes of allowing ADUs — one for families in RS-1 and RS-2, and another for all other zoning districts — extend the right to the majority of property owners but not in one-fifth of the city’s land area. This could perpetuate unsafe homes and cause inequitable disparities in financial opportunities and impositions on homeowners to gain approvals that could be borne more easily by homeowners in Mount Greenwood (median income: $106,538; 83% of the population is white) than in Washington Heights (median income: $55,428; 96% of the population is Black). City Council should choose to level the playing field and allow all homeowners to benefit from the ADU expansion.

Steven Vance, South Loop

Comment to Chicago zoning committee about the insufficient number of Zoning Board of Appeals members

Update: As of July 5, the ZBA has three members and not four as I stated in my comment. Additionally, there is a transitional shelter scheduled for the July 19, 2024, ZBA meeting which may be at risk of not getting approved if one or more of the three members has a nay vote.

June 25, 2024

Hello members of the Chicago city council committee on zoning, landmarks, and building standards. My name is Steven Vance. I am a resident of the city of Chicago and an urban planner. I have spoken to this committee multiple times this year about matters that affect how much housing gets approved to be built in the city. 

I reiterate my comment from your April 8, 2024, meeting that the committee should amend the zoning ordinance to ensure that the Zoning Board of Appeals can function when there are not enough board members. Nearly three months later the ZBA is still incomplete. The City’s Municipal Code requires that the ZBA has five members and two alternates. Alternates fill in for members when they are unable to attend meetings, due to illness or personal matters. 

Screen grab showing a thumbnail of me speaking to committee.

In February, the ZBA was short two members which may have led to the failure to approve a proposed shelter in Uptown, as proposals require three affirmative votes and the proposal received two affirmative votes. The ZBA having incomplete membership puts the timely approval of applications for special use and variations at risk. This shortfall materially jeopardizes new development, especially matters involving new housing.

Since April, Mayor Johnson appointed two members, but only one, Adrian Soto, has been confirmed. 

The ZBA’s current state of four members is bound to affect more projects. I mentioned in April that at least two more shelter housing applications, which have support from the Chicago Department of Housing, are intending to be heard this year at ZBA but those projects have yet to come before ZBA. 

The proponents of those shelters could be feeling forced to wait until the ZBA has a full membership or else suffer the same fate as the shelter that failed at ZBA in February. This could push back construction and operations of the shelters, and further exacerbate the housing shortage and homelessness crisis in Chicago.

The Mayor and City Council should immediately take any reasonable steps within its authority to address housing and homelessness in the City, including:

  • First, prioritizing a fifth member.
  • Second, making pragmatic amendments to the code to allow alternates to sit in when there are fewer than five regular appointed ZBA members. The current code allows alternates to sit in only for regular members who are missing that day, and
  • Third, the committee should advance the Cut The Tape initiative which recommends revising zoning code requirements that “require all shelters and transitional housing developments to seek approval from ZBA, regardless of building size, form, or underlying zoning designation” – closer to an “as of right” situation that applies to most kinds of housing. 

 I speak for many when I urge this committee to legalize housing and adopt changes to effect such a strategy.

Prepared remarks: the ordinance to expand ADUs citywide has multiple benefits

Alongside representatives from CMAP, Community Investment Corporation and Preservation Compact, ULI Chicago, and the Chicago Association of Realtors, I also spoke at a subject matter hearing on June 11, 2024, to the Chicago City Council’s zoning committee about the necessity to expand accessory dwelling units to be allowed citywide. Read more about the proposed ordinance.

Hello, my name is Steven Vance. I am an urban planner and consultant in Chicago. I am also a member of Urban Environmentalists Illinois. I have been studying, promoting, and collaborating around ADUs for six years. I was on ULI Chicago’s task force, have presented to various groups about building an ADU, and created a free directory on ChicagoCityscape.com that lists local architects and companies who can design and build ADUs. 

1st Ward Alderperson La Spata comments on the proposed ADU expansion ordinance during the subject matter hearing.

Given that background of some of my ADU work I feel that I understand a lot of how the adoption of ADUs in the last three years has fared and can point out future benefits that the city will gain if the proposed ordinance is adopted. I will highlight some of those future benefits.

Removing the maximum coach house size cap. The proposed ordinance would change the cap on how much floor area a coach house could have. Allowing larger coach houses on larger lots will allow more family-sized units with two or more bedrooms. Additionally, larger coach houses can make them more cost effective to build, because of the high fixed costs in building a coach house of any size. The proposed ordinance could facilitate more family-sized coach houses than are currently being built.

Allowing ground level coach houses through the administrative adjustment for parking. The proposed ordinance would allow property owners to build a coach house at grade, meaning it can be accessible. This would make it easier for families to decide to build a small house for an aging family member, who may very well be the current owner, as well as put a dent in the dearth of accessible housing. A second benefit of this change is that ground level construction is significantly cheaper than building atop a garage.

Allowing all-residential buildings in non-residential zones to participate. The proposed ordinance would allow thousands of residential-only buildings that are in B and C zoning districts to add an ADU. The Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University found that 25 percent of buildings with 5 or more units fit into this category but are currently ineligible. These are the building sizes that are most capable of adding two or more ADUs. If two or more ADUs are built, half must be rented affordably. Adopting this ordinance means those buildings would be able to add ADUs.

Allowing coach house and conversion units on the same lot can also be cost effective for property owners. Either one would likely require a water service or electric service upgrade so it makes sense to make one upgrade to serve multiple new homes.

I believe that the biggest gains in the city’s ADU policy will come from allowing them citywide, in all residential and mixed-use zoning districts. Citywide expansion makes it simpler for the departments to administer, makes all buildings capable of adding an ADU eligible to add an ADU, makes it easier for homeowners to add an additional home to fit their changing household needs, and lets other property owners add to the city’s housing abundance thereby slowing down rent increases that the city is experiencing.

Note: The plan, as explained in Crain’s and the Chicago Tribune, is to vote on the ordinance at the June 25, 2024, zoning committee meeting, and if approved there the City Council would vote at their July meeting. (City Council does not meet in August.)

Chicago’s zoning code doesn’t allow five (or more) roommates

Can you guess how many people the Chicago zoning code allows living together in a typical apartment or house when all of them are unrelated to each other?

  • 2
  • 4
  • 3
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7 or more

The answer is in the following paragraph.

The Chicago zoning code allows an unlimited number of related people to live together along with three unrelated people. If you’ve got roommates and none of you are related, the zoning code says that there can be only four of you in a dwelling unit. (There are alternatives to this scenario which are not part of the discussion, comprising shelters and congregate housing and group living, which are separately defined and exclusive of a typical “roommate” scenario.)

If you want to have four roommates you may need a five-bedroom house, which you could easily find in Chicago and go ahead and rent, you’ll be fine. The city will not enforce the zoning code in this situation.

The city’s planning and buildings departments will, however, enforce the zoning code at the time of a Planned Development or building permit application if the proposal is for an apartment building (likely marketed as a co-living situation) with five-bedrooms apartments. I’m aware of two such proposals happening in Chicago; one of the proposed projects is under construction but was modified prior to approval to have only four-bedroom apartments.

How the zoning code regulates occupancy limits in housing

The Chicago zoning code has two definitions (or “defined terms”) that have to be read together to understand how the limitation works.

17-17-0248 Dwelling Unit. One or more rooms arranged, designed or used as independent living quarters for a single household [a defined term, see below]. Buildings with more than one kitchen or more than one set of cooking facilities are deemed to contain multiple dwelling units unless the additional cooking facilities are clearly accessory and not intended to serve additional households.

17-17-0270 Household. One or more persons related by blood, marriage, legal adoption or guardianship, plus not more than 3 additional persons, all of whom live together as a single housekeeping unit; or one or more handicapped persons, as defined in the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, plus not more than 3 additional persons, all of whom live together as a single housekeeping unit.

None of the terms in the household term are themselves defined terms in the zoning code, so a “single housekeeping unit” would take the definition from the “latest edition of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary”, or as interpreted by the zoning administrator.

Most apartments, and especially apartments marketed and used as “co-living” are considered dwelling units. Thus, each apartment can comprise one household and one household can comprise a single housekeeping unit and a single housekeeping unit can comprise an unlimited number of related people and up to three unrelated people.

However, there is an exception that an unlimited number of unrelated “handicapped persons” can live with up to three unrelated people.

Why occupancy limits don’t belong in zoning codes

Occupancy limits based on family relationship and familial status arose when parts of cities were becoming overcrowded during an era of industrialization and moving to cities (urbanization). I’m not going to elucidate this point but direct readers to the history described in “Full house: occupancy standards, normative zoning, and the responses of US cities to changing households” by Amarillys Rodriguez.

Putting occupancy limits in zoning codes instills moral values that are outdated, maintain segregation, and fail to respond to changing norms, family development patterns (think “chosen family” households), and having the choice to decide who one wants to live with. In fact, it may be “virtually impossible to satisfactorily define family, or develop an alternative to the term, in a manner that satisfies the competing
goals of maintaining privacy, allowing freedom of association, and protecting
community ‘character’ (itself a loaded term)” (Sara Bronin, “Zoning by a Thousand Cuts”)

In Nolan Gray’s terms, zoning standards like this are based on “elite norms and heuristics”. (A heuristic is a problem-solving technique used when devising an optimal solution or assessment is impractical.)

Occupancy limits, if there are any, should be based on demonstrated facts that show benefits or pitfalls of numerically limiting who and how many people can live together. A building code that’s based on ensuring occupants’ safety is likely where that can be achieved and regulated; I’ll discuss what the Chicago Building Code has to say about occupancy limits in the next section.

Colorado Governor Polis recently signed a law that strips municipalities of the power to set occupancy limits that aren’t based on reliable information about the safety of the number of people in an apartment.

An excerpt from Colorado House Bill 24-1007; it reads, “(3) a local government shall not limit the number of people who may live together in a single dwelling based on familial relationship. Local governments retain the authority to implement residential occupancy limits based only on: (a) demonstrated health and safety standards, such as international building code standards, fire code regulations, or Colorado department of public health and environment wastewater and water quality standards;”

Chicago building code sets a kind of occupancy limit

If Chicago – or Illinois – were to adopt a law similar to Colorado’s the existing Chicago Building Code would regulate the design of an apartment. It does not set a maximum, though.

Jamin Nollsch, a senior architect at UrbanWorks who analyzed the code on my behalf, said “For the purposes of discussion, the Chicago Building Code says that at least eight people could occupy a 1,000 sf apartment. The code commentary makes it clear that the 125 s.f. per occupant load factor for apartments is a design mechanism for the egress system, and not an absolute maximum.

“There are many code sections that set limits on the occupant load of an apartment, whether it is the 7 s.f. per occupant limit, or 10 occupants for spaces with 1 exit, or the width of the egress doors. The occupant load factor, however, is intended to be a design factor and not a maximum. With approval from the building official, the maximum number of occupants can be as high as the egress design allows.”

In other words, if an apartment can be designed with a sufficient number or size or type of exiting paths, there is not really a limit to the number of people who the building code indicates could safely occupy the apartment.

Do you think the Chicago zoning ordinance should be amended to defer to the building code in setting occupancy limits?